Now and then in the Australian Ballet’s night of white

When William Forsythe rehearsed his In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated with the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987 he asked one dancer to do a step she had never seen before – a kind of “pas de chat renversé” as he called it.

Wait, she said, that’s not in the [ballet] canon, not in the rhetoric of ballet.

Forsythe said: “It is now”.

In the Middle sprang onto the stage with a thunderclap of sound and the most minimalistic set imaginable – two small gold cherries, placed as Forsythe instructed the crew, “in the middle of the stage, somewhat elevated”.

In the Middle changed everything, marking a significant turn in the direction of ballet. But, close to three decades later, we’ve seen faux-Forsythe In the Middles so many times – even more than copycat-Jiri Kylians – with the result that In the Middle is in danger of being bleached away.

When Wayne McGregor’s Chroma premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2006, many in the audience must have experienced the same shock of the new as they did in Paris in 1987 – a visceral reaction to the concept and score, and most of all to movements that certainly didn’t exist in the canon.

While Forsythe took ballet off-centre, McGregor stretched and manipulated the dancers’ bodies to such an extent that only a few balletic steps or poses remain, among them an arabesque and a releve.

In Chroma, the demands on the dancers are many and challenging. They must force their torsos into a serpentine shape and ripple their limbs in the manner of an octopus’s tentacles. Their heads poke forwards and their necks nudge, like those dipping birds you see through the back windscreen ahead. And they connect in peculiar ways – a foot pressed on another’s thigh, an arm behind a partner’s knee and torsos bumping against one another.

While the moves are tough for the dancers, the extremities of the choreography may in future be seen as just another extension of the changes in choreography and technique that began in the 1960s/70s, when the norm became split jumps, high extensions for men as well as women, and frighteningly off-balance poses.

McGregor sets his seven Chroma episodes within a white box through which 10 dancers enter and exit via a large, rectangular space at the rear.

John Pawson’s set, beautifully illuminated by Lucy Carter’s design, is minimalist and architectural as are Moritz Junge’s costumes (simple, soft tops, slightly ruched, with shoe-string shoulder straps and briefs) in grey, cobalt, lavender and caramel, blending with the dancers’ skin.

The delicate designs are in direct and powerful contrast with the music that is often loud, sometimes lyrical, sometimes resembling the sinister preamble to a vicious moment in a James Bond movie.

McGregor has described Joby Talbot’s score (his own existing music and arrangements of songs by the rock duo, The White Stripes) as “acerbic, visceral, physical, quite violent”, in contrast to the “zen-like stage”.

As he’s created close to 20 works since Chroma, aspects of McGregor’s choreography have become very familiar over the last eight years, as has the concept of a contemporary dance work as episodic and staged within a white or black box.

Of course it’s difficult to predict whether Chroma will represent an early 21st century turning point for dance, one that has a lasting impact in the same way as the 1980s’ ballets of Forsythe or Jiri Kylian whose works today are so different to those they choreographed then.

In the Australian Ballet’s triple bill, I’d like to have seen Chroma last rather than first, but I can see that staging logistics and the rotation of various dancers might have dictated otherwise.

On the opening night, at least 15 of the dancers in the overall program danced in two of the three works.

Lana Jones and Andrew Killian, two of the 10 excellent dancers in Chroma, had just 25 minutes to transport themselves from the distortions and speed of Chroma into the classical line of Stephen Baynes’s Art To Sky.

Baynes’s new work is danced to Tchaikovsky’s Mozartiana, written in 1887 as a tribute to Mozart, and his title is taken from the last three letters of Mozart’s and Tchaikovsky’s names.

Art to Sky pays its own dance tribute to the legacy of Petipa and Balanchine, encompassing the honouring of the ballerina as the shining centrepiece, the virtuosic fouettes of Russian Imperial ballet in the 1890s, and moments of Petipa’s Rose Adagio and Balanchine’s Apollo.

Hugh Colman’s “stage concept” (as it’s described in the program) depicts classical archways and while the women wear pointe shoes, Colman has not linked classicism with the obvious tutu, but with dance practice clothes, mauve, teal, brown and rose-coloured, the men in tops and cropped tights, and the women in leotards under ballet skirts. It’s difficult to make a ballet skirt that looks good on stage, and unfortunately these skirts did little to flatter the women.

Art of Sky begins solemnly, as three women lie on the stage representing, it seemed, an image of romanticism, but the ballet quickly changes into a playful game with Andrew Killian as the pivotal man of the piece, seeking solace or connection with Natasha Kusen and Valerie Tereschcenko. The women’s cheeky duet was a highlight of the ballet that also included references to social dancing and folk dancing, and two very strong performances in the “ballerina” roles by Madeleine Eastoe and Lana Jones.

Art of Sky was squeezed in the middle of the program of three works and it may have suffered as a result, with more time spent on readying Chroma for the stage and the restaging of the Kylian works. I would like to see Art to Sky again in another setting, perhaps in an evening of Baynes’s works including Beyond Bach and Molto Vivace.

The ballets of Kylian and the Australian Ballet are old friends, collaborating often and always looking comfortable with one another.

Petite Mort and Sechs Tanze are the last and first of the six Black & White Ballets choreographed by Kylian over a period of six years.

Petite Mort (1991), opens with six men in high cut, flesh coloured briefs, each manipulating a foil in unison. For a testosterone-charged beginning there’s nothing like it within Kylian’s work but the necessary tension and machismo were not quite present on opening night.

The performance faltered slightly with two small mishaps at the start but continued to a secure finish. The beauty of Petite Mort lies in the perfection of its symmetry and in its staging, with six couples threading their way through a constantly surprising scenario and the introduction of peculiar intruders – the disembodied crinolines that glide onto the stage.

With the initial foil game over, the men run downstage carrying a silk cloth resembling an ominous storm cloud. Six women in nude coloured corset leotards are revealed beneath the cloth. As they form partnerships with the six men, the couples are joined by a third partner, a foil, as they dance to two calm and stately piano concertos by Mozart.

Sechs Tanze (1986) follows Petite Mort, (no interval), demonstrating the link between the two. Sechs Tanze is also danced to Mozart (his Six German Dances) and each ballet features headless, limbless ‘dancing’ crinolines.

In Sechs Tanze a foil has its own comic moment in the spotlight and while each ballet is infused with a kind of uncertainty, Sechs Tanze is the crazy partner of the two, with its sight gags, powdered wigs, falling down dancers, general upstaging and mugging and what Kylian has called “Mozartian underwear”. The men are bare-chested and the women in Manon-bedroom-scene undress.

For all the jollity and fun, one of the most interesting moments of the ballet comes at the end, when the eight dancers creep away into the back of the stage, as if they have been caught playing a naughty and slightly embarrassing game in public.

Ambiguity? That’s Kylian’s game.

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Vivienne Wong and Rudy Hawkes in Chroma, The Australian Ballet 2014, photo © Jess Bialek

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Art to Sky, The Australian Ballet 2014, photo © Jess Bialek

Andrew Killian and Madeleine Eastoe in Art to Sky, The Australian Ballet 2014, photo © Jess Bialek

Andrew Wright and Dimity Azoury with artists of The Australian Ballet in Petite Mort, The Australian Ballet 2014, photo © Jess Bialek